Michael was seven years old and headed to class in second grade. Here’s what he was wearing: pointy black cowboy boots, a brown leather aviator jacket, and faded blue jeans, each knee with a rip of his own making.
He had also put on black sunglasses and a black-and-white bandanna, wrapped expertly, by his own hand, around his brow. And to top it all off, dangling from his right ear, left over from a Halloween costume, was a gold-plated, clip-on hoop earring.
At the time, this was pretty much his standard outfit. He was four feet tall and weighed 45 pounds. He boarded the yellow bus decked out like a rock star going on a cross-country tour.
All this took some serious preparation behind the scenes. Michael would hang out in front of the bathroom mirror, combing his thick, wavy brown hair to mimic the styles he caught on music videos on TV. He begged us to let him grow his hair longer so he could sport a ponytail.
But the look Michael adopted was going to take him only so far in his still barely adolescent life. So he also mastered a second language: fluent back talk. If I joked with him or somehow said something that upset him, he might tell me to give him a break or take a hike or fly a kite.
He would propose, with a growing frequency that caused me worry, that I either get out of town, get real, get a job or, more simply, get a life. His mouth came to strike me as a prematurely—and precociously—adult instrument, a weapon of mass destruction.
Oh, he was the complete package all right: the funky uniform, the hipper-than-thou attitude, the up-to-the-minute idiom. His purpose was clear. Michael wanted more than anything on the planet to be cool. Too cool for school.
So it went for a spell, maybe a year or two. He would strut through our apartment, lip-synching to M.C. Hammer and fingering an air guitar. He would carry a comb to school to keep up appearances. He would chase girls around the playground, no doubt without yet quite understanding why.
He bopped along with us on family outings too—bandanna, earring, and all—and drew surprised glances and even occasional rubbernecking from passersby. One time we all went out for pizza and the teenagers at the next table in the restaurant were so taken with his look that he was invited over for a cameo appearance.
As it happened, I knew the deal here, understood the impulses that drove our son. At his age, I was short and skinny, with thick black glasses and frizzy hair. I, too, once wanted more than anything to be too cool for school.
So I never said anything to Michael about his getup or his wisecracks, nor saw any reason to. I knew nothing I said to him would make any difference, or even necessarily should. Rather, I chose to do what I really had no choice but to do. Privately, in my heart of hearts, I cheered him on. At least one of us, I figured, should get to be cool.
Bob Brody, a New York City executive, essayist and father of two, is the author of the memoir Playing Catch with Strangers: A Family Guy (Reluctantly) Comes of Age.